018: The Spiritual Child: Possibly exaggerated, conclusions uncertain
Someone in a parenting group on Facebook suggested I do an episode on The Spiritual Child, by Dr. Lisa Miller. My first thought was that it didn’t really sound like my cup of tea but I was willing to read it and at least see what it had to say.
I was surprised by the book’s thesis that spirituality can play a critical role in a child’s and adolescent’s development. But I was astounded that her thesis was actually backed up by scientific research.
I invited Dr. Miller to be on the show and she initially agreed — but during my preparation I found that the science supporting spirituality doesn’t seem to be quite as clear-cut as the book says it is. I invited Dr. Miller again for a respectful discussion of the issues but I didn’t hear back from her.
In this episode I describe the book’s major claims, and assess where the science seems to support these and where it doesn’t. I conclude with some practices you can use to deepen your child’s spiritual connection, if you decide that this is the right approach for your family.
Note: I mainly focused on the research related to child development in this article, but as I was about to publish this episode I found an article claiming that the science behind some of Dr. Miller’s other assertions might not be so solid either. I didn’t read all of those studies (because they’re not directly related to child development, and it took me a lot of hours to find and read just the ones that were), but the author’s conclusions very much mirror my own.
Benson, P.L., Roehlkepartain, E.C., & Scales, P.C. (2012). Spiritual development during childhood and adolescence. In L. Miller (Ed.). The Oxford handbook of psychology and spirituality. New York: Oxford.
Berry, D. (2005). Methodological pitfalls in the study of religiosity and spirituality. Western Journal of Nursing Research 27(5), 628–647. DOI: 10.1177/0193945905275519
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Kendler, K.S., Gardner, C.O., & Prescott, C.A. (1997). Religion, psychopathology, and substance use and abuse: a multimeasure, genetic-epidemiologic study. American Journal of Psychiatry 154, 322–329. Full article available at: http://medicina.fm.usp.br/cedem/simposio/Religion,%20Psychopathology,%20and%20Substance%20Use%20and%20Abuse.pdf
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Koenig, L.B., McGue, M., & Iacono, W.G. (2008). Stability and change in religiousness during emerging adulthood. Developmental Psychology 44(2), 532–543. DOI: 10.1037/0012–1618.104.22.1682
Mahoney, A. & Tarakeshwar, N. (2005). Religion’s role in marriage and parenting in daily life and during family crises. In R.F. Paloutzain & C.L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (p.177–198). New York: The Guilford Press. Chapter available online at: http://psychologyofreligion99.blogspot.com/2013/07/religions-role-in-marriage-and.html
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Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We have a bit of a different episode lined up for today: we’re looking at the book Your Spiritual Child by Dr. Lisa Miller. I was chatting with some parents in a Facebook group a while back and mentioned that I’m always looking for podcast episode topics, so one of them suggested I do an episode on this book. My first thought was “well that doesn’t really sound like my cup of tea but I’ll read the book and see where it goes from there.”
So I read the book and I was pretty surprised — Dr. Miller makes all sorts of claims about the integral role that spirituality can play in a child’s development. Her thesis is that children are naturally spiritual and that by not allowing them to develop this quality we’re depriving them of an essential ingredient in their success. The really surprising part to me, though, was that her claims are underpinned by actual scientific research. So I emailed Dr. Miller and said “hey, I’m an atheist but I read your book and I’d love to interview you on the show so we can dig into this and both my listeners and I can understand it better.” She initially responded with something along the lines of “sounds great!” but we had some scheduling difficulties and then I stopped hearing back from her. While the scheduling attempts were going on I was doing all the background research I normally do for an interview and I started to get more and more worried. I was finding discrepancies between the outcomes of studies Dr. Miller referenced and the way she was describing them in the book -not in all cases, but in enough that I wanted to understand the issues further. In the end I emailed her and told her what I’d found, explained that I was really interested in a rigorous intellectual discussion and didn’t have any malicious intent, and invited her again to be on the show but she didn’t respond. I told her it would be a bit of a bummer to have spent all this time doing research and not have an episode to show for it so I would plan to go ahead and run it without her if she decided not to participate — so here we are.
So, let’s start with the book. Dr. Miller defines spirituality as “an inner sense of living relationship to a higher power, which might be God, nature spirit, universe, the creator, or whatever your word is for the ultimate loving, guiding life-force.” The important thing here is that spirituality is not tied to religion — it’s about an individual’s personal relationship with the transcendent, not about how organized religion might shape that experience. We know this through the results of a study of white, Caucasian twins in Virginia by Kenneth Kendler, which asked the twins about their experience of spirituality religion as part of understanding whether these could be protective against substance abuse. Researchers like to study twins because it’s the closest thing we have to two people who are identical but still have important differences between them, like their experience of spirituality. Dr Miller says that “by comparing monozygotic (which are twins from the same egg and who are thus genetically identical) with dizygotic twins (which came from two different eggs fertilized at the same time and are thus genetically different), our tendencies around personal devotion are due 29% to broad heritability, 24% to family environment, and 47% to our own personal unique environment. Now I actually couldn’t find this result in Kendler’s study. These specific findings aren’t discussed. It’s possible Dr. Miller worked with the statistical results provided and devised these percentages, but they are not found in the paper. Later in the book she calls him her “senior colleage,” so I wonder if she had access to data not described in the paper. In the paper, Dr. Kendler finds that age and number of years of education are positively associated with personal devotion (which is what Dr. Miller calls transcendental relationships) and that none of the three dimensions of religiosity differed between monozygotic and dizygotic twins, although he doesn’t mention these differences for personal devotion.
The study did that personal spirituality is a different thing from religious affiliation, which was another point that Dr Miller made, and this was corroborated by a follow-up study by Dr. Kendler. The first study also found that both spirituality and religion are associated with lower levels of alcohol and tobacco use which is something we’ll get to again later. Spirituality was inversely associated with depressive symptoms, indicating that people who experience spirituality are less likely to experience depression, and this actually wasn’t the case for religion. But other than these findings, there were no significant correlations between spirituality or religiosity and any of 27 other mental illnesses.
It seems as though organized religion is at a bit of a crossroads in the U.S.. A Gallup poll that’s updated annually finds that the percentage of people reporting ‘none’ as their religion is increasing, and people reporting that they have a great deal of confidence in the church or organized religion is declining, while people who say they have ‘very little’ confidence in these organizations is increasing. Yet 89% of people asked in 2016 if they believe in God will say “yes”- and that’s down from the 96% who believed in 1944, but it’s still really high. So what do all these people who believe in God but don’t believe that organized religion has the answers tell their children? Dr. Miller quotes some parents she’s talked with as saying “I don’t want to share my views about spiritual things because I’m not so sure myself. I could say something to steer my child in the wrong direction.” Another said “I’m just not sure how to put it. There is almost nothing at all for parents that helps us talk about spirituality, other than religion. But I’m not religious and I don’t like the way religion was taught to me.” Many parents they know they don’t want organized religion for their children, but they don’t know what else to replace it with.
Dr. Miller goes on to quote these studies from Dr. Keller a number of other times, so in each case I tried to corroborate the evidence from an alternate source. I did find one from Professor Ralph Piedmont of Loyola University, who wondered if spirituality could be considered a dimension making up a person that’s different from the other traits that make up a personality and found that transcendence does indeed appear to be a different component of personality than other characteristics. So these studies point to the idea that at least a part of our spirituality is a genetic component of our makeup, and not something that is something we learn through exposure to organized religion.
Dr. Miller’s second major finding is that while we might notice elements of and a curiosity about spirituality in young children it really comes into its own in adolescence. This fits with reading I’ve been doing for my classwork on adolescent development, related to the identity exploration that adolescents go through as they ‘try on’ different identities to see which one fits them. It turns out that teenage angst and not wanting to be around parents very much are developmentally necessary things for adolescents to go through as they figure out who they are as separate beings from their parents.
My expectation would have been that the influence of biology decreases over time as the child is exposed to more experiences over the course of her life but a study by Dr. Tanya Button at the University of Colorado finds that at age 14, the largest impact on a teen’s spirituality is from her family, but by age 19 it is primarily shaped by her biology — in other words, the biological changes of puberty and adolescence. When the researchers looked at the underlying causes of that shift they found that it was about half due to the force of genetic expression, or the “unlocking of the window” as Dr. Miller puts it, and the other half to the personal environment that the teens create as they go through the search for their identity — things like going to a youth group or to church, or trying meditation. This shift in the influence of heritability was corroborated by Dr. Laura Koenig at the University of Minnesota using another twin study, so we can be reasonably sure about the conclusion that there is a surge in the importance of biological factors in determining an adolescent’s interest in spirituality.
So all of this brings us to the question “why should we care about spirituality?” It’s nice to believe nice things about the world and the people in it, but are there any real benefits to being spiritual? And this gets to the heart of the issues I was having as I read through the research that Dr. Miller draws on for the book. Because as far as she is concerned, the evidence is pretty cut and dried — but it seems to me that it’s rather less so.
So let’s take a look. We’ll start with young children: Dr. Anat Shoshani studied 479 five-year-old children in Israel to find out what kinds of characteristics are linked to a child’s adjusting well to school. Dr. Miller reports that “the degree of the child’s transcendent strengths, based on spirituality, hope, humor, and gratitude, was more predictive of teacher’s ratings on school adjustment than the child’s other inborn capacities of intellect or temperament.” But it turns out that that’s not what the study really said — it looked at four different types of school adjustment — cognitive, behavioral, social, and emotional. Transcendent characteristics were indeed better related to good emotional adjustment (by a really tiny amount in some cases), but for cognitive, behavioral and social adjustment there were other factors that were more important than transcendent strengths in every case. In fact, transcendent strengths weren’t even among the top four factors for cognitive and behavioral adjustment. This study also brings up a methodological issue related to the study of spirituality — this Israeli study was the only one I saw that included hope and humor as definitions of a transcendent strength, and it’s entirely possible that these factors aren’t really related to spirituality at all.
Dr. Miller has done a lot of work related to spirituality and depression. She and her colleagues did a study looking at MRIs of people with a high risk for depression; some of these people reported that religion or spirituality was important in their lives, while some said it wasn’t. They found that the outer layer of the brain, called the cortex, was thicker in some places where people reported a high degree of religiousness and spirituality, and that a thinner cortex is associated with a certain type of familial risk of depression. They caution that they can’t say which causes which; or even if one causes another — it’s possible that people with thicker cortices like to go to church or perhaps people who go to church altered the cortical thickness.
In another study, Dr. Miller found that adults who reported that religion or spirituality was highly important to them had about a quarter the risk of experiencing major depression over the next 10 years compared with other participants, and that this effect was most pronounced among those who were at higher risk for depression by having a depressed parent., who had about one tenth the risk of depression over the next 10 years than those who didn’t find religion or spirituality important. This protective effect was found primarily against the recurrence rather than the onset of depression, which wasn’t adequately explained in the results — it’s not clear to me why spirituality wouldn’t protect you from getting depressed in the first place, but it does protect you from getting depressed again. Yet in another of Dr. Miller’s studies, she assesses the impact of maternal religiosity as a protective factor against depression in offspring. One of her major points in that work is that “overall the findings do not support the hypothesis that offspring religiosity is protective against offspring major depressive disorder.” Another finding, that if mother and child has similar spiritual beliefs then the child is less likely to experience depression WAS cited in The Spiritual Child, but it’s not clear to me why she reports that finding but not the other finding that contradicts some of her other work.
Dr. Miller also looked at how spirituality and religiosity is associated with substance use and abuse in adolescents — and this is one of the few studies on spirituality that have looked at both males and females. Researchers acknowledge that the relationship between spirituality and depression and other factors is stronger for females so they usually just ignore males. So this research found that a variety of measures of religiousness and spirituality were associated with less use of alcohol, contraband drugs, and substance dependence or abuse — as long as you’re some variety of Christian. The religious denominations that people could pick from were fundamentalist Protestant, Baptist, mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic and other or unaffiliated. And I thought to myself “really?” This sample claims to be nationally representative and participants could choose between two types of Protestantism but neither Judaism nor Islam is represented, and the athiests get lumped with the people who believe in God but not in organized religion? Anyway, that issue aside, the results of this study were actually pretty robust. But no association was found between substance abuse and a rigid adherence to creed, which implies that the way to try to protect adolescents from substance abuse is not to confine them within the rules of organized religion, but to support them in questioning rules and beliefs based on their personal spiritual experience.
Finally, Dr. Miller has looked at the link between religiousness and sexual responsibility in a nationally representative survey of adolescent girls, and found that personal devotion, otherwise known as spirituality, is linked with having fewer sexual partners outside a romantic relationship. Frequent attendance of religious events was associated with a high perception of risk in contracting HIV or getting pregnant from unplanned intercourse, believing that contracting HIV or getting pregnant would cause a great deal of suffering, and using birth control. But personal conservatism, otherwise known as rigid adherence to spiritual texts, was positively associated with unplanned sex. I’ll be exploring this last item in an episode soon on sexuality in children and this finding does go along with the research I’ve been doing for that — if you teach a child that sex is something they shouldn’t do, then when it ends up happening they find themselves unprepared for it. So it does seem as though spirituality is associated with behaviors that are less likely to lead to negative outcomes associated with less-than-responsible sexual behavior. In the upcoming episode we’ll also talk about how the awesomeness of sexuality has been reduced to “don’t get pregnant and don’t get HIV” when we talk to children and teens, so stay tuned for more on that if you’re interested.
So, if we summarize the findings, we can say a few things.
- There seems to be a genetic component to spirituality which is why we see elements of spirituality in very young children. We see a big push in spirituality during puberty as part of the adolescent’s drive to understand herself as a unique person and her place in the world.
- There is some connection between spirituality and depression, but we’re far from being able to say that having a spiritual practice causes the reduction in risk in depression.
- Spirituality seems to protect against substance use and abuse in adolescence.
- Spirituality is associated with responsible sexual behavior, while a high level of involvement in organized religion is linked to unplanned sex.
- You may have heard of a variety of other studies discussing the benefits of religion and spiritual practice on health, but I encourage you to dig deeper before you take those studies at face value. In most cases these studies are not designed to measure the connection between spiritual factors and health; they often just throw in one question asking whether the participants in the study go to church, and draw conclusions from that. They very rarely attempt to understand the direction of the correlation — so we would have no way of knowing whether church attendance causes poor health or whether the individual started going to church when they got sick. I found a paper that reviewed 266 articles published in the year 2000 that were identified by the term “religion” in the literature databases, but only 17% of them were actually relevant to claims about health benefits associated with religious involvement. One study qualified as related to religion and health because the weight-control program in the study happened to be held in a church. Others get cited by other researchers as having a positive finding when actually the study had no significant effects.
So let’s wrap up as we usually do by asking what a parent is to do with this information. It does seem as though Dr. Miller has overstated the benefits associated with spirituality in at least a couple of instances where the results in the studies she cites don’t quite support her assertions. But the preponderance of the evidence leaves me thinking that there does seem to be *some* benefit for children and adolescence associated with spirituality. For the sake of completeness, I did review a couple of papers that discussed potentially negative associations between children and adolescents and religion. One was focused on the links between religion and things like cults and organized terrorism, which is beyond the scope of this episode. The other was a review paper that presented a lot of disparate findings and made no attempt to reconcile them. For example, it cited studies showing that religion may be linked to more skilled and effective parenting, parental warmth, and family cohesiveness. One of the studies it reviewed found that parents’ level of endorsement of theologically conservative views about the Bible was related to self-reports of more hugging and praising of preschool and school-age children, and they were less likely to yell at their children. But then in another section it cited other studies showing that conservative Protestant parents of 3-year-olds are more likely than other parents to believe that spanking is a necessary, effective way to gain immediate and long-term obedience, and less likely to believe spanking has negative consequences such as engendering fear or resentment. They were also less likely to report feeling guilty about spanking. The researchers report that the parents’ degree of biblical literalism or Christian fundamentalism is more important in predicting disciplinary attitudes then just being a member of a conservative Christian group. So: being theologically conservative means you hug and praise more often but you also hit your kids and don’t feel bad about it. The authors of the review paper don’t attempt to reconcile these discrepancies, so either Christian parents must be raising some seriously confused children or at least one of the cited papers has not correctly assessed how Christian parents interact with their children.
There are also, of course, struggles within more mainstream religion like the child abuse that has occurred at the hands of Catholic priests (although we should note that this issue is not confined to religious settings — authorities in England are right now investigating abuse at the hands of soccer coaches). And people in mainstream religions may encounter deep psychological struggles if they believe that they are being punished or abandoned by God in the face of a major trauma. One study looked at patients terminally ill with heart failure and found that those struggling with their religious beliefs were more likely to suffer more serious depressive symptoms, which is a serious mortality risk for people with advanced cardiac disease. And patients with HIV or AIDS can suffer poorer health if they hold a more rigid view of a punishing and God compared to a compassionate and forgiving view of God or a view of an impersonal higher power. So under certain circumstances religion, perhaps more than spirituality, can be associated with harmful health outcomes but if these sorts of physical and emotional crises can be avoided the overall effect appears to be at least neutral or maybe beneficial.
So we’ve seen that the impacts of spirituality are most apparent in the adolescent years. But what do we think is going to happen if we’re suddenly open to talking about spirituality when our child turns thirteen, when we’ve essentially shut down all discussions on the topic until that point? Do we think our child is going to be interested in having that conversation with us? I don’t have a thirteen year-old but I was one once, and I think the foundation is going to be really critical here. I’ve mentioned the concept of synaptic pruning before, which is the idea that we’re born with as many synapses in our brains as we will ever have, and our brains naturally prune, or kill off, the ones we don’t use. This concept has been very well-studied and is active in many aspects of a child’s development from her relationship with her mother to the way she learns language. So if we don’t have these conversations with our young children, then the conversations our adolescents are able to have may not be as rich. You don’t have to think of yourself as the teacher and imparter of knowledge; it’s OK to use a model where you discuss things in a circular way, revisiting them and incorporating new information, and also letting the child get opinions from people other than you.
Before we get to a list of ideas and practices you can use to deepen your child’s spiritual connection, I want to make the point that the definition of developmental success that is most entrenched in public policy as well as our healthcare system is that health is the absence of disease. If there isn’t something wrong, everything must be OK. If you haven’t listened to my recent interview with Dr. Claudia Gold then you might want to do that. Her book talks about how the healthcare system allots doctors a minimal amount of time to diagnose symptoms related to ADHD in children and prescribe medication to control those symptoms without ever addressing the underlying causes. Bringing that idea back to spirituality, what if there’s more to it than just avoiding unsafe sex and drug use, and spirituality could help our children to develop competencies to not just avoid pathologies but to actively thrive? That’s the part I find attractive and why I’ll keep thinking about this topic.
Dr. Miller describes a lot of practices you can use to develop your child’s spiritual connection over several chapters and I’ll summarize these for you in six major topics.
- Slow down. Allow times for unscheduled time to take walks, be alone, think, and talk about the wonders of life.
- Teach children that science is a valid way of knowing the world, and that their personal experience is also a valid way of knowing the world. Both analytical and intuitive abilities are a critical part of even a scientific skillset.
- Encourage children to take an interest in the things and people around them. Don’t let subjects be off-limits. Don’t say “that’s Charlie’s problem, not yours” or “if she needs help she’ll ask the teacher for it” or “homelessness is a big problem and yes it’s sad to see someone homeless but don’t worry; you have a home and a family that loves you.” Young children experience the suffering of other people and even animals directly, as if it was their own suffering. They worry about the lost duckling, or put a crumb of bead down for the ants on the sidewalk. Help them to value their authentic experience.
- Don’t avoid difficult questions. Miller gives the example of racism, and actually describes some of the studies I cite in my podcast episode on racism as ways people can really feel racism for themselves. And don’t just wait for them to ask you: ask them. When they mention someone feeling down and out, ask if they’ve ever felt that way. Ask what they would do in that situation. Ask why their favorite cartoon characters are motivated to act in the way they do. Ask questions that don’t have neat answers where good wins and bad loses.
- Just like the way racism develops by children preferring people who look like them, by around age six many religious children will rate their God as being more omniscient than the God that someone else who lives far away believes in. Try to have discussions about what different people believe so they can respect spirituality in other people and cultures. This acceptance of all religions and types of spirituality will also stand you in good stead if your adolescent decides they don’t like your version of religion — at least then you still have the common ground of respect and spirituality.
- Children might often feel powerless because we call so many of the shots in their lives. But with spirituality it’s a different story: every child has the power to notice things that aren’t right and take responsibility for trying to put them right, whether it’s cheating or bullying or just doing the right thing. Encourage them to think for themselves and speak up when they see something that isn’t right. This will stand them in good stead as teenagers when they *know* what is the right thing to do but they don’t feel compelled to act according to their moral standards. If you’ve been helping them to maintain those synaptic pathways for a decade already, that teen might be able to use her inner voice to make better decisions for herself.
And what is this atheist going to do with this information? Well for right now, not much differently. We already make time for digging sand on the beach and wading around in creeks after the rain. We celebrate moments like unpacking the groceries together as points of real connection between us. We buy lunch for the homeless man who sits outside our grocery store, and we always take a minute to engage with him as a real person. As my toddler gets older, I feel a bit better prepared to help her to think through some of the big questions about life she might have. I won’t be sending her off to church anytime soon but if she decides she wants to go, I’m open to it.
Thanks, as always, for listening — you can find references for the 21 books, articles, and websites I read to prepare for this episode at YourParentingMojo.com/spiritual.
Originally published at Your Parenting Mojo.